With Israel’s campaign season in full swing, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will add a new stop to his campaign trail. At U.S. House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation, Netanyahu is slated to address Congress on March 3 to advocate for a tougher line against Iran, in particular regarding the ongoing negotiations over its nuclear program. If Congress gives Netanyahu a platform to address these issues, it should also begin a conversation with President Barack Obama’s administration about how the United States can strike a blow against Israel’s continued settlement construction.
Since Netanyahu took office in March 2009, the population of Israeli settlements has grown dramatically. According to recently released Israeli government data, from the beginning of 2009 until the beginning of 2014, the settlement population grew 23 percent — more than double the rate of the overall Israeli population, which expanded 9.6 percent. In late December, another 380 new housing units in East Jerusalem settlements were approved.
This growth is partly being funded by millions of dollars from tax-exempt American charities, which help expand and support settlements. Even though this revenue stream arguably violates Internal Revenue Service rules, neither Congress nor the Obama administration has done anything to stop it.
In late September, settlers moved into 25 housing units in Silwan, an East Jerusalem neighborhood that abuts the Old City to the south and is home to 50,000 Palestinians. The move prompted the Obama administration to condemn the organization that engineered the purchase — a reference, apparently, to an Israeli association known as Elad — as one “whose agenda, by definition, stokes tensions between Israelis and Palestinians.”
Elad’s name is an acronym for “To the City of David,” the name Israelis use for Silwan. The name reflects the organization’s mission to, in its own words, “strengthen the Jewish connection” in the neighborhood, in particular, and East Jerusalem more broadly “through settlement and environmental and touristic development.” Elad’s agenda coincides with Israel’s state policy of moving its citizens into occupied territory — a position that violates international law. The Rome Statute, the treaty establishing the International Criminal Court, provides that the court may prosecute government officials responsible for the “transfer, directly or indirectly, by the Occupying Power of parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.”
American taxpayers indirectly subsidize Elad’s work. In 2011 and 2012, the two most recent years for which tax filings are publicly available, Elad received around two-thirds of its donations through a New York-based charity, Friends of Ir David. The charity transferred $5.6 million in grants in 2012 and $6.9 million in grants in 2011 to Elad — almost its entire revenue stream. The founder of Elad, David Be’eri, is also a board member of the American charity.
In late October 2014, nine more Israeli families moved into Silwan. They were assisted by Ateret Cohanim, another Israeli settlement association largely funded through its U.S.-based charity, which raises between $1 million and $2 million in tax-deductible contributions annually for Ateret Cohanim’s benefit.
Israeli officials claim disingenuously that Jewish citizens are merely buying property in Arab neighborhoods. In reality, the Israeli government has collaborated closely with organizations like Elad to boost the presence of Israelis in occupied Palestinian territory, a policy that could complicate the path to any eventual solution to the conflict based on a partition of the land.
The Klugman Report, commissioned by the Israeli government in 1992 and produced by a committee headed by Haim Klugman, then director general of the Justice Ministry, revealed that Elad gained its foothold in Silwan by persuading the government to evict Palestinian families from their homes and transfer their property to Elad. This government decision was based in part on allegedly fraudulent evidence purporting to show that the land belonged to the state. Israel Nature and Parks Authority also gave Elad a contract to assist in the administration of an archeological site in Silwan, further expanding Elad’s control over the neighborhood.
In occupied East Jerusalem, Israel has built more than 50,000 housing units for Jewish Israelis in areas it declared state land. Israel still severely restricts the 39 percent of Jerusalem’s population who is Palestinian from building there, partly to implement the Jerusalem municipality’s policy of achieving a “demographic balance” of 70 percent Israeli Jews to 30 percent Palestinians in the contested city.
The role of American charities in supporting settlement construction has long been known — even if, in the words of Daniel Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Israel, “it was a thing you didn’t talk about in polite company.” Breaking this taboo, Marc Ginsberg, a former U.S. ambassador to Morocco, and others have recently called on the Obama administration to stop the spigot of tax-free dollars coming from, as Ginsberg writes, “international and American ‘philanthropies’ that fund these settlements.” Internal Revenue Service rules prohibit tax-exempt organizations from engaging in, planning, or sponsoring illegal acts or acts contrary to established U.S. public policy, such as discrimination. Funding settlement expansion likely falls within that category: The United States has long called settlements “illegitimate,” and there is no question that they violate the Fourth Geneva Convention’s prohibition on transfer of civilians to occupied territory.
The Obama administration should direct the Internal Revenue Service to ensure that U.S. charities do not contribute to settlement expansion by clarifying its policy on settlements and conducting an audit of organizations that help support settlements. Members of Congress should also request that the Government Accountability Office conduct an audit of such organizations. While some tax-exempt organizations, such as the Hebron Fund and Christian Friends of Israeli Communities, make settlement expansion an explicit part of their mission, other more established charities aren’t clear about what percentage of the dollars they raise go to settlements. Nefesh B’Nefesh, an organization that encourages immigration to Israel from North America, is one non-profit that includes settlements as potential communities for immigrants in promotional material on its website.*
For decades, even as every U.S. administration condemned settlement construction, they all allowed it to continue with impunity by avoiding policies that could extract a price for the settlements’ continued expansion. The United States has consistently vetoed U.N. Security Council resolutions critical of settlements, pressured the Palestinians not to go to the International Criminal Court to examine settlements as a possible war crime, and allowed charities to freely send donations to build and expand settlements. It’s up to Congress and the Obama administration to put an end to this double standard and stop enabling Israel’s violations of international law.